“To travel is to live.” - Hans Christian Anderson.
Never a truer word has been spoken and, for me, this trip was to the birthplace of the man who uttered those words; Odense, Fyn, Denmark.
The city is completely engulfed by the indelible mark that Anderson has left, even surpassing Goondiwindi’s insatiable appetite for all things Gunsynd.
Anderson was also on the money when he said “life itself is a fairytale.”
Here I was lining up in Scandinavia, at a world championship, representing my country. Something I never thought possible at any level in any sport.
The ITU Long Course World Championship consisted of a 3km swim/121km bike/30.6km run, my longest event ever, by a fair way.
Perhaps I could follow in the motif created by Anderson in The Ugly Duckling and transform myself to something above and beyond expectations, I was certainly ready to have a crack.
One thing Denmark doesn’t lack this time of year is daylight, the sun is up at 4:30am and doesn’t set until 10:30pm.
A warmish week leading saw the mercury reaching the high 20’s most days, however race morning provided a much cooler proposition.
Timing chips were handed out race morning and as we queued to get ours a small girl brandishing an Australian flag caught my attention. I gave her a thumbs up and she walked over and uttered some simple words that I would carry with me for the next eight hours.
“Do Australia proud today,” was all she said, with a beaming smile that oozed the exuberance of youth. She probably knew little of the poignance of the comment or how much it meant, but it stuck.
All I could reply was “don’t worry, we will.”
The swim took place in the Odense Harbour (aka Odense Havn) part of the industrial centre of town.
Black water was sprinkled with a combination of litter and jellyfish. The banks of the swim course comprised of imposing industrial buildings. The swim itself included an “Australian exit” where you had to climb on a floating pontoon and return to the water.
Being an ITU event, the race featured the usual build up of dramatic music and announcements that lend a sense of occasion to it. I love that sort of stuff and being the type who doesn’t get overly nervous, I really enjoyed it.
After the pros were off our big wave of 18-44yo’s was ushered down a steep wooden ramp and onto a platform from which we plunged into the murky depths and made our way to the deep water start.
I arrived at the two start buoys around three minutes before start time. The usual ritual of officials yelling at people to get back behind the line even happens at world champs.
For some reason, we were held at the start for an eternity, with the hooter finally sounding around five minutes late. A collage of flailing arms and moving water ensued. If I was ever going to be an ugly duckling, this was the leg.
The first half went reasonably quickly and I got onto the pontoon without issue, enjoying the rare chance to dive back in (not many were diving).
I’m not sure how much swimming Hans would have done back in the day, but a 3km outing could well have formed the storyline for his classic, The Little Mermaid.
In that tale, a mermaid is happy to trade her life in the sea in order to gain a human soul. I felt my soul was slowly being lost in the home of Anderson and it would only be restored once I was out of this bloody harbour.
Soon enough, I was. You beauty, terra firma for the rest of the day.
Now it was onto another triathlon first. Having never done an Ironman it was my first time using gear bags.
We were hauled up the exit stairs by volunteers and made our way to a change tent where you had to locate your bag hanging on a hook and then proceed to change into what you needed for the bike leg, followed by stuffing all your used swim gear into the bag.
With my worst leg behind me, perhaps Anderson’s quote from The Flax was befitting the current feeling.
“Now I shall be of some use in the world, as every one ought to be; it is the only way to be happy.”
And happy I was. This was easily the most enjoyable bike course I have raced on.
The 121km comprised of two laps, just under 60km each, followed by a 1.2km section to T2.
The wind was solid throughout, just enough to annoy you and always feeling like a cross breeze.
Each lap began in the industrial part of the city, not unlike the back blocks of Port Kembla (for those from Wollongong).
Maybe Hans was onto such similarities when he said “Every town, like every man, has its own countenance; they have a common likeness and yet are different; one keeps in his mind all their peculiar touches.”
The course then made its way into a more rural setting, through villages, past farms and under a forest canopy. It included more than its fair share of technical sections and was constantly winding and undulating.
While far from perfect, the roads were still better than anything that is served up at home.
For one of the flattest countries on the planet, we still managed to climb around 600m over the duration of the ride.
I managed to maintain a heat rate and power just slightly less than a half-distance race and execute the bike portion close to how I had hoped to.
Could I have gone harder? Possibly but I’m not sure that it would have been without consequence later in the day.
My nutrition had gone perfectly. I’d run two bottles. One enough of my Infinit custom mix for four hours and another of electrolytes.
Garmin says the average temperature for the ride was 12°. While it did feel cool early on, it certainly didn’t seem that cold.
The dismount line for T2 was at the top of a ramp leading into a gigantic underground car park. It was nice to have someone grab your bike for you and put it away while you went on bag search number two.
I found my seat and started getting my shoes on. A fellow Aussie sat next to me and asked if I was finished. He had just completed the aqua bike which is the same race sans the run. He said he felt pity for me when I informed him I was about to go run. But I assured him this was the part I’d been waiting for all day. And he left me with these wise words; “well bloody get into it then!”
Naturally the only way out of the underground car park was up a ramp; and what an experience it was. Emerging from the dull room to the light of roads lined with people cheering in an unwittingly man made amphitheatre. It almost had a feel of a Christian about to be thrown to the lions.
The plan from coach for the run was simple. Three 10km sections, building each time.
Each of the four 7.5km laps snaked their way through the main streets of the city before entering parkland and a soft surface. They then looped back on a combination of road, trail, cobble abs pavement back to the start.
My nutrition plan was simple. Infinit Napalm run combined with the run course water and the odd sip of coke.
The run course water was unique, it came in a plastic bag, kind of the size of a fabric softener sachet. You simply bit the top of and away you went. They were actually better to use than a cup.
The first 10km was controlled; an enjoyable experience. The support on course from people from all over the world was sensational. The cry of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” in all sorts of accents could be heard.
When I moved up a gear for the second 10, I felt even better. “How good is this?” I thought, preparing myself to run a fast final 10.
Maybe Hans could have penned something about this (I wonder if they’d have called him Ando if he was an Aussie?).
“His own image; no longer a dark, gray bird, ugly and disagreeable to look at, but a graceful and beautiful swan. To be born in a duck's nest, in a farmyard, is of no consequence to a bird, if it is hatched from a swan's egg.”
Here I was, the ugly duckling, about to sprout my new plumage over the final 10km and become a beautiful swan. Maybe not quite as dramatic as that, but just entertain me for the sake of this race report.
The final 10 started well, I was really looking forwarded to the beginning of the final 7.5km and the charge through the lined city laneways.
With around 6km to go, I developed a sharp pain in my knee. Every stride was like having a knife inserted. Not in a serial killer, flailing kind of way, more a torturous style. It effected my ability to run at pace greatly.
That final stretch hurt, not just physically but mentally.
Just like the sleepless night of the prospective bride to be in Anderson’s The Princess and the Pea, I too endured my share of discomfort. Although mine did bit earn me the same kudos as that of the eventual Princess.
Being so close to executing the way I wanted to was frustrating; but it was far from a disaster. The damage was probably around 10-15 minutes and maybe five or six places, but I’m not one to dwell on “what ifs” because there’s a lot more things that could have gone wrong that didn’t.
I crossed the line in 7:34 and 23rd place at the world championship. Nowhere near last which was something that I did fear.
There was nothing left in the tank and, as I write this three days after the race, I am still struggling to get down stairs effectively.
I genuinely enjoyed the distance and learnt a lot about myself in both the lead up and during the race that I believe will lead to bigger and better things. When I say bigger, the answer is a resounding NO, that does not mean an Ironman; ever.
This event was amazing experience that I will forever cherish; no beautiful swan and perhaps forever and ugly duckling, but not for a lack of trying.
I wonder if I would have got the tick of approval from that little girl with the flag.
As the great Ando once said; “We cannot expect to be happy always ... by experiencing evil as well as good we become wise.”